Skip to Content
Politics

Palestinian Suffering Is Never As Urgent As The Counterfactual

3:47 PM EST on December 11, 2023

Palestinians carry a list of Gaza victims during a rally amid a general strike in the occupied West Bank.
Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP via Getty Images|

Palestinians carry a list of Gaza victims during a rally amid a general strike in the occupied West Bank.

One month ago, a group of children stood outside Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza and begged the world to value their lives.

One boy read a statement in his second language in an attempt to reach an English-speaking audience. “The occupation is starving us,” he said. “We don’t find water, food, and we drink from the unusable water. We come now to shout and invite you to protect us. We want to live, we want peace, we want to judge the killers of children. We want medicine, food, and education and we want to live as the other children live.”

Three days later, according to reporting by the Washington Post, the Israeli military told the staff at Al-Nasr Children’s Hospital to leave or be bombed. Within its care, the hospital had five premature babies but no functioning equipment to transport them safely. A Palestinian nurse working for Doctors Without Borders took one baby that he assessed had the best chance of survival and left the other four on their oxygen supplies, with the belief that the IDF would evacuate the rest. Two weeks later, a reporter for Al Mashhad walked into the hospital’s neonatal ICU and saw four decomposing bodies. The babies had been left there to die. 

The Washington Post article ran in the print edition with the headline “Four fragile lives found ended in evacuated Gaza hospital.” Ended by whom? The blame was concealed; the IDF and Red Cross denied any responsibility. The English language was perverted into unidiomatic nonsense by the contortions required of it. The babies could be mourned as a tragedy by the reader, so long as that sadness could not turn into anger at who killed them. It’s horrific that they were left for dead and eaten by worms. Could you imagine if it had happened to babies who mattered?

Had this happened within the land of an American ally, these events would have triggered worldwide condemnation and some sort of consequences for the perpetrator. Instead the violence continued until a temporary ceasefire was reached on Nov. 24, so that Hamas and Israel could exchange some but not all hostages, and a small bit of humanitarian aid could be distributed to Gaza. Then, on Dec. 1, after a week of fitful peace and arrests of Palestinians to compensate for those who had been released, Israel resumed bombing. Through the lens of a social media algorithm, it took on a distorting effect. See a three-day-old post about the ceasefire being extended one more day, right above a just-published video of a weeping Palestinian kissing a bloodied burial shroud goodbye.

Don’t look away—that has been the mantra for the past two months. Bear witness to what Israel is doing to Gaza and the West Bank, even if the footage is stomach-turning. The injunction is crucial, but it’s also clear that there are plenty of people who can still look, cluck their tongues mournfully, and accept the resumption of bombing. In other words, sympathy isn't enough. It turns too easily to a politically sanitized pity, especially with the interventions of a Western media apparatus that sees no shortage of things to lament but nothing worthy of blame. The possibility of any deeper solidarity has been, you might say, found ended.

As the writer Mohammed El-Kurd said, there is a framework of “perfect victimhood” for which the Palestinian will never qualify. They are already considered suspicious in life and in death. But even by these impossible standards, what could a premature baby have done beyond merely existing? No one with power will answer that question, because to them the baby is not considered human. One of the largest American newspapers can run a fully reported article with evidence that the Israeli military caused these newborns to die, and still it can’t be presented as truth.

Those within Israel’s military know that the specter of Hamas can be used to kill anyone without consequence. In a comprehensive article from +972 Magazine, members of Israel’s intelligence community acknowledged the obvious: The Israeli military has been given permission to consider anything a target, and all these casualties of journalists, children, and civilians have been calculated as permissible. From the report:

“Nothing happens by accident,” said another source. “When a 3-year-old girl is killed in a home in Gaza, it’s because someone in the army decided it wasn’t a big deal for her to be killed — that it was a price worth paying in order to hit [another] target. We are not Hamas. These are not random rockets. Everything is intentional. We know exactly how much collateral damage there is in every home.”

+972 Magazine

These are the extreme examples: the premature baby, the innocent child, the victims everyone is supposed to agree deserve no harm. But that consensus no longer exists. The nature of Zionism treats Palestinians not as humans but as part of an amorphous pestilence capable of anything, shifted to fit any reason. When they are alive, they are a potential threat; when they are dead, they are a victim of their own circumstance. There is always some impossible counterfactual, some exonerating hypothetical. This process is how a child’s death can be blamed not on the Israeli soldier who fired the rocket, but on the imagined Palestinians who failed to put the child out of harm’s way. 

The power of the hypothetical is recognized and exploited here as well. Look at the way the moral panic about campus antisemitism turned into a McCarthyite crusade, which reached its height recently with a far-right politician, who a year ago was parroting the talking points of white nationalists, equating the "From the river to the sea" slogan and chants about the "intifada" with calls for genocide. This was part of Elise Stefanik's effort to corner a few university presidents as they testified before Congress, and it worked. By accepting the false premise that these chants were calls for the murder of Jewish people, the presidents found themselves on their heels when Stefanik asked if calls for genocide violated the universities' rules on harassment. They equivocated, perhaps mindful that answering in the affirmative would commit them to the mass expulsion of students. In the aftermath, UPenn president Elizabeth Magill resigned and Harvard president Claudine Gay issued an apology. This was the whole process in miniature: Hypothetical peril was treated more urgently than actual slaughter, and then it was mobilized in service of eradicating basic expressions of Palestinian consciousness and solidarity. That this played out against the backdrop of actual antisemitism across the country, not from supporters of the Palestinian cause but from Stefanik's colleagues, only made it more effective.

There is in fact an urgent crisis happening on college campuses. This is what it looks like: a billboard truck displaying the names and faces of pro-Palestine students; a hit-and-run targeting a Muslim Arab student at Stanford; Columbia shutting down the student groups Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace; three Palestinian college students shot in Vermont, one of them left paralyzed from the chest down. And yet the conversation is fixated on the theoretical possibility of this happening to Jewish students, while ignoring or deriding the visible and vocal anti-Zionist Jewish population. For Palestinians, their actual is always subordinate to someone else's subjunctive.

Where there isn't outright suppression, there is palpable condescension toward these protestors and college students for not knowing how the world works. But the workings of the world have produced 17,000 dead Palestinians, more of them mangled and maimed by missiles, as the overwhelming majority of American politicians sit on their hands or cheer it on. As you watch the American media go through every possible contortion to avoid giving a dead Palestinian even a fraction of the worth of a live Zionist, ask yourself: Is that a properly functioning world? Don’t you get a sinking feeling that some central aspect of our society is deeply broken? 

The consent is not just being manufactured, but dropshipped. The president of Israel can talk like a fascist about preserving the values of Western civilization, and the focus will remain on Hamas. Every actual horror on the ground in Gaza will be inverted and doubled in the imagination to become the nightmare threat to Israel only barely being held at bay. Those fears are prioritized, not only above Palestinian solidarity but above actual antisemitism. Don’t bother asking how many Palestinian deaths will be enough, because you already know the answer.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter